Located between Raheny and Clontarf on Dublin’s northside and consisting of 240 acres, St Anne’s Park, called after the local St Anne’s Holy Well, is the second-largest municipal park in Dublin - the Phoenix Park being the largest.
Bisected by the Nanekin River, St Anne’s contains woodland walks, a city farm, a children’s playground, a dogs’ playground, a model-car racing track, GAA and soccer pitches, tennis courts, boules courts and a par-three golf course. A recently added attraction that has proven immensely popular is a tree sculpture carved by Northumberland-based artist Tommy Craggs, who transformed an ailing Monterey Cypress into a stunning piece of art that reflects the bio-diversity of St Anne’s and the nearby nature reserve of Bull Island.
The park is a venue for occasional pop concerts during the summer and its Rose Garden hosts the annual Rose Festival every July. Its Tudor red-brick stables, renovated in the 1990s by Dublin Council as the award-winning Red Stables Art Centre, contain artists’ residences, exhibition space and Olive's Room, a café named after Lady Olive Ardilaun, the erstwhile owner with husband Lord Ardilaun (Arthur Edward Guinness) of St. Anne’s Estate. The Red Stables Food Market opens every Saturday.
St Anne’s is a magnet for locals and tourists alike but for the generations of Dublin’s northsiders, including myself, who spent most of our childhood days out of doors, it was more than just a park. It was a vast adventureland. We called it simply ‘down the woods’ and it was where we spent many of our waking hours and whiled away the long, summer days of our school holidays.
The tallest tree in the park in those days was nicknamed Mount Everest. To climb Mount Everest was a noble feat of derring-do and earned the climber a special status of high regard among his or her peers. I did it once. It took me half an hour to get up. At the top, I made the grave mistake of looking down and was aghast at the lofty height to which I’d ascended. So petrified was I that it took me most of the afternoon to make my woebegone way back down.
It was down the woods that we played Hide-and-Seek, Red Rover, Cowboys and Indians, Robin Hood, Knights of the Round Table. It was our Wild West. Our Sherwood Forest. Our Treasure Island. Our Twilight Zone. For one brief, shining moment of childhood’s fleeting infinity, it was our Camelot - the landscape on which our waking dreams were drawn.
In the late evenings we’d persecute with jeers and sneers the courting couples who lurked in the bushes in a futile quest for privacy. A few quick years would pass and the games would be Kiss-Chasing and Spin-the-Bottle and eventually we would be the frustrated fumblers in the bushes cursing the childish carry-on of the kids who plagued us with their mockery.
We did all this with a casual, vague knowledge of the history that pervaded the place.
Gerard O’Rourke is the owner/operator of St Anne’s Walk, offering guided tours of the park. “I grew up locally,” he says, “but I never really realized the great history of the park until later in life, when a visit to a Raheny Heritage exhibition at the Rose Festival awoke my interest. I bought the book St Anne’s by Joan Sharkey - a must-have for every home in Dublin’s northside.”
His tours are popular with locals and tourists alike. “I get a nice balance between locals, community groups and international visitors. The locals are fascinated by the great stories of the past and the tourists say we’re very lucky to live beside such an amazing, beautiful park with such history.”
The estate belonged for generations to descendants of Arthur Guinness, the founder of the famous brewery. “The grandsons of Arthur came to live there in 1835 and it grew from 30 acres to 450 acres,” says Gerard. “Benjamin Lee Guinness reared his family there, including his son Arthur Edward Guinness, who inherited St Anne’s after his father’s death. The view over Dublin Bay was to them the Bay of Naples - they had a romantic love affair with Italy and many of the Follies recreated the romantic settings they visited on their travels.”
The Follies (buildings constructed mostly for decoration but appearing as if they serve some other purpose) include a Pompeian Temple of Isis beside a pond, a Roman-style tower on a hill above and a Herculean Temple overlooking the Nanekin River.
The estate was once dominated by a large Italianate-style big house which locals called simply The Mansion. This was gutted by fire while being used as a store by the Local Defence Force during World War Two. But the ruins remained and its cellars and tunnels, in varied states of disrepair, were a popular venue for exploration and adventure to generations of kids – a state of affairs that would give palpitations of the heart to today’s arbitrators of health and safety. The ruins were demolished in 1968.
Lady Ardilaun, who was prominent in the Royal Horticultural Society, developed the gardens based on her admiration of French chateau gardens, and her husband planted wind-breaking evergreen oak trees and pines along the boundaries and main avenues.
Bishop Benjamin Guinness inherited the estate in the 1920s. He couldn’t afford to maintain such a large holding and he sold most of the land to Dublin Corporation in 1939 for £55,000. He retained 30 acres and a house on Sybil Hill for his main residence and this later became the site of St Paul’s Secondary School.
During the housing crisis of the 1950s, the Corporation took 200 of the 450 acres and built 700 homes, which became St Anne’s housing estate.
The Guinness family were great benefactors to Dublin City, says Gerard O’Rourke. “Benjamin Lee Guinness restored St Patrick’s Cathedral at his own expense. His son Arthur Edward acquired key-holder rights to St Stephen’s Green Park, had it landscaped and gifted it back to the people of Dublin. He also rebuilt the Coombe Maternity Hospital and cleared many slums and tenement blocks in the city. So much was his generosity to the city of Dublin that the House of Lords gave him peerage and he became Lord Ardilaun. They were both elected Unionist & Conservative MPs, serving in the House of Commons, and Benjamin Lee was Lord Mayor of Dublin.”
The Church of Ireland in Raheny was built by Lord Ardilaun at his own expense. “It was known as All Saints Church as both Benjamin Lee and Lord Ardilaun shared their birthday on November 1- All Saints Day,” says Gerard. “He built a primary school in the village and paid for the schoolmaster. The family controlled North Bull Island and gave leases to Royal Dublin and St Anne’s Golf Clubs. They also allowed access across the estate for the Howth Tram Company to connect the city with Howth along the seafront.”
Only in recent years has the park had major improvements which have made it more friendly to the public, says Gerard. “All the Follies have been restored from a state of near dereliction and a walking path added around the perimeter of the park. Removal of hedgerow and shrubbery made it a much safer and user-friendly destination. The park is now full of activity.”